They’re so ubiquitous you might not notice them anymore: blue “sponsor-a-highway” signs displaying the name of a local company that pays for private cleanup crews to pick up litter in the area.
But slow down a bit and — wait, was that the logo of a marijuana company?
Eager to build brand awareness in an industry subject to tight advertising and marketing restrictions, six cannabis firms have purchased a total of 16 “sponsor-a-highway” signs across the state, according to the state Department of Transportation, which supervises two corporate vendors that manage the program.
There is a problem: The simple designs are missing a series of warnings that the Cannabis Control Commission requires on every advertisement by a licensed marijuana company. Now, MassDOT officials will consult with the commission about whether to yank the signs.
The dispute comes as the industry tries to navigate the often-confounding set of restrictions on advertising in the state’s legal cannabis industry. Marijuana companies and state regulators are struggling to balance the expansion of the industry with demands by public health advocates, who have fought to restrict ads for tobacco and alcohol for decades.
“You never know when you’re driving down the street if your child is going to look up and say, ‘Gee, Mom, what’s that on the billboard?’ — just like with Joe Camel back in the day,” said cannabis commissioner Jen Flanagan, who helped draft the agency’s advertising and marketing rules. “It’s really about striking a balance between allowing businesses to grow but at the same time limiting exposure to the products.”
Flanagan called the sponsor-a-highway signs that lack required warnings “problematic,” saying, “I would like to have the disclaimers on them.”
The commission requires every marijuana advertisement to carry at least four different warning messages: one saying “please consume responsibly,” two of five possible health cautions (among them admonishments for pregnant women and minors to abstain), and a long paragraph containing various other disclaimers.
Some see the “sponsor-a-highway” flap as the latest example of how overly-restrictive advertising rules are hampering marijuana businesses. Critics say the state’s regulations, which come on top of restrictions imposed by major online ad platforms such as Facebook and Google, are especially unfair to smaller local firms.
“Obviously, the regulations are really stifling,” said Beth Waterfall, a marketing specialist who works with marijuana operators. “The people with money to burn can take more risks putting up billboards, and if an enforcement action comes about, it’s not that big of a loss for them.”
Meanwhile, she added, “you have box trucks going down the highway with giant pictures of vodka bottles.”
During recent hearings on proposed changes to the agency’s rules, marijuana companies questioned the advertising regulations, denouncing the length of the required warnings and a ban on T-shirts, among other provisions.
“My store is going to be called the KG Collective and I can’t sell a T-shirt that says ‘KG Collective’? — I just think that’s absolutely stupid,” said Marcus Johnson-Smith, an entrepreneur who is working to open a marijuana store in Cambridge. “I don’t see why we can’t create a responsible advertising framework that allows companies to grow and diversify their products.”
Flanagan said she could envision a compromise in which dispensaries would be allowed to hawk apparel bearing their brands, as long as the clothing didn’t explicitly indicate they were marijuana companies.
Curaleaf, a marijuana firm with dispensaries in Oxford and Hanover, bought two of the sponsor-a-highway signs, one on Route 6 in Brewster advertising its forthcoming Provincetown location and another on Interstate 395 in Auburn. A spokeswoman for the company said it had relied on assurances from a sponsor-a-highway vendor that the ads, which typically cost less than $1,000, were compliant.
“Curaleaf takes pride in our state and has joined several existing cannabis operators already sponsoring highways and adopted a highway on Cape Cod as part of our ongoing efforts to . . . improve the communities that we serve and operate in,” the firm said in a statement.
Temescal Wellness, which bought sponsor-a-highway signs in Hudson and Framingham, said it canceled the deal after deciding the format was too constrained.
“People don’t understand what Temescal Wellness means” from the name alone, said Brandon Morphew, the firm’s marketing director. “We need to share that we’re a cannabis company and that sign doesn’t do that.”
Under commission rules, marijuana companies cannot make unsupported health claims, nor market to minors, and they can only place an advertisement if they “reasonably expect” at least 85 percent of the audience is over 21 years of age. Billboard companies such as ClearChannel offer advertisers data on the demographics of those driving by its signs.
But Massachusetts — unlike Nevada and some other states where cannabis is legal — does not prohibit the depiction of marijuana consumption or marijuana products in advertisements, which some public health advocates say is a worrisome oversight.
The health advocates also argued there’s little guarantee billboards won’t be seen by numerous minors. And they noted that unlicensed “ancillary” companies such as the website Weedmaps — which recently erected a billboard in East Boston that reads “BUY WEED ONLINE” — can advertise with few restrictions.
“Marijuana might be legal in the Commonwealth, but that doesn’t mean we have to accommodate the industry’s desire to push and advance their market even further,” said Heidi Heilman, president of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance.
While few if any marijuana companies have published ads showing marijuana consumption, wary of public and regulatory blowback, some walk right up to the line.
For example, to promote its Pittsfield store, Temescal Wellness put up a billboard advertisement in nearby New York that reads “Tourism has never been higher” — with a tiny nugget of cannabis flower punctuating the sentence. Another billboard by the company in Pittsfield depicts two women laughing, with one holding a barely-recognizable vaporizer.
“We don’t, as a company, show consumption,” Morphew said. “We’re not looking to convert anyone into being a cannabis consumer.”
Another strategy used by marijuana companies: publishing public service announcements alongside their brands. Revolutionary Clinics, for example, erected a billboard in Somerville proclaiming, “Let’s do this right. Don’t drive high.”
Heilman slammed the sign, noting that it includes the company’s logo, phone number, and location. Flanagan defended the practice, saying it’s good if marijuana companies encourage responsibility.
However, even some other marijuana firms think such “branded PSAs” are just too risky.
“You could interpret that as a compliant practice and you could also probably interpret it as a prohibited practice,” said Amanda Rositano, president of New England Treatment Access. “It depends on how you read those regulations.”